Ulster clash gives Leinster chance to pick themselves up

Inevitable that Matt O’Connor would make changes after loss to Toulon

Jamie Heaslip in training with the Leinster squad. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Jamie Heaslip in training with the Leinster squad. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

 

Ulster v Leinster Ravenhill, Friday, 7.35pm BBC 2, Sky Sports 5 Changes were inevitable in such a short time frame but after some specific errors at Stade Vélodrome last Sunday, Matt O’Connor has also clearly changed his mind.

Richardt Strauss for Sean Cronin and Dominic Ryan for Jordi Murphy both feel like a case of holding heavily battered thoroughbreds until what promises to be a brutal last quarter in Belfast. Cronin and Murphy are currently living with Jamie Heaslip for consistent excellence.

That’s a ploy.

But it’s hard to interpret the benching of Ian Madigan – while it gives Gordon D’Arcy a deserved World Cup lifeline – as anything other than punishment for Bryan Habana’s intercept try and putting three kicks out on the full against Toulon.

If the Aussie coach trusted the Blackrock outhalf he wouldn’t have handed the 10 jersey to Wasps bound Jimmy Gopperth in the games that really mattered.

“He’s got to be better moving forward,” said O’Connor of Madigan on Tuesday. “He’s got to get back on the horse and be as good as he can as quick as he can.”

Season defining

Gopperth’s place-kicking, the one area where Madigan is established as a world-class operator, could come back to haunt the under pressure head coach.

Regardless, cries for O’Connor’s head from those lacking the journalistic integrity to put their real name above their words shouldn’t influence the silent majority that truly understand the mechanisms of Irish rugby. O’Connor has a season to run on his three-year contract. With that last year essentially comes four new signings – Johnny Sexton, Isa Nacewa, Cian Healy and Seán O’Brien – in which to rebuild the empire. Kane Douglas and many others will also, presumably, be of the required conditioning levels.

At least O’Brien, typically immense against Toulon, and Healy are already on deck. The Clontarf loosehead came through a shoulder scan this week with no serious concern. Same cannot be said for the left labral tear suffered by Marty Moore. A second surgery in six months is needed but at least those 12 weeks of rehabilitation open the door for Tadhg Furlong.

There’s a growing theory that the Wexford man has the most potential of any tighthead prop in Ireland. Some evidence may follow when Mike Ross tires around the 55 minute mark.

And what of Ulster? Leinster problems pale in comparison but the worm might just be turning for Neil Doak and his indigenous coaching ticket as they endeavour to gift Les Kiss the smoothest of transitions into the director of rugby position, surprisingly vacated by David Humphreys last summer, post World Cup.

“Between (Doak), Johnny Bell and Allen Clarke, the three coaches have worked very hard,” said Tommy Bowe. “It was a bit of a shock to the system to be thrown in like that, to something new. Bringing in a team manager like Bryn Cunningham has taken away a lot of the off-field stuff which means they can concentrate on the rugby.

“They have a huge amount of respect from the squad. The players are big fans and as a team we would be happy to dig in and buy in and help them out.”

But Bowe didn’t shirk the obvious: Ulster must not only bury Leinster but capture a Pro12 title to ensure this season is remembered as anything other than a failure.

“I mean it is 2006 since we last won the league. For us to be taken seriously . . . we’ve got the facilities, we’ve got super coaching and another great coach coming in and another big signing (All Black Charles Piutau) in over a year’s time, but at the end of the day trophies and winning things is what a team is graded on. I want to win silverware with Ulster rugby. I think we are in a good position to do it this year.”

Equally, the wheels could so come off in these last three matches. This is do or die for Leinster but Munster follow them north knowing that victory is essential to secure a home semi-final (possibly against Ulster) before an tricky trip to Glasgow on May 16th.

So victory feels essential for both teams.

Those Leinster supporters who put their money where their loyalty lies might just pile those Marseille winnings (victory over Toulon was priced at 10/11 with a minus 11 handicap) into the plus four handicap here.

Comfortable passenger

Rory BestChris Henry

O’Brien and Strauss will embrace trench warfare with Henry and Best. And don’t miss Ryan seeking out Henderson in the collision of these young blindsides. Or the two English-born enforcers, Mike McCarthy and Tuohy scrapping for a single World Cup spot. Same possibly goes for D’Arcy and Darren Cave.

The previous meetings – Leinster have won the last five and lost only twice in 10 journeys to Ravenhill – don’t really matter. Nor should their five day turnaround as the dire need to breathe some pride back into this awfully flat campaign provides enough motivation. With Madigan to come in and kick the winning goal, of course.

LEINSTER: R Kearney; Z Kirchner, B Te’o, G D’Arcy, L Fitzgerald; J Gopperth, I Boss; C Healy, R Strauss, M Ross; D Toner, M McCarthy; D Ryan, S O’Brien, J Heaslip (capt). Replacements: S Cronin, J McGrath, T Furlong, B Marshall, J Murphy, E Reddan, I Madigan, D Fanning. ULSTER: L Ludik; T Bowe, J Payne, D Cave, C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar; C Black, R Best (capt), W Herbst; D Tuohy, F Van der Merwe; I Henderson, C Henry, R Wilson. Replacements: R Herring, A Warwick, B Ross, R Diack, C Ross, P Marshall, I Humphreys, S McCloskey. Referee: J Lacey (Munster). Betting: Ulster 10/11 (handicap -4) to win, Leinster 10/11 (+4). Ulster 1/2 to win, Leinster 8/5. Previous: January 3rd , 2015 Leinster 24 – 11 Ulster; May 15th, 2014 Leinster 13 – 9 Ulster; May 2nd 2014 Ulster 20 – 22 Leinster. Verdict: Leinster win.

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